Module 4: Sustaining Change: Critique and Care
Figure 1: Sustaining Change Trailer
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Objective: To spark and sustain equitable system-wide change and adaptation in higher education.
Change is hard. Academia, as an institution, was built to resist change and uphold established practices. The flaws in the system — false scarcity, exclusion, rigid hierarchy — are not new, but they have been exacerbated throughout the pandemic and demand address. Numerous innovative experiments in more inclusive, future-friendly learning have met insurmountable barriers and failed to thrive. How do we sustain change, complexity, and care in a system that was not designed for what our society currently demands of it?
How can we foreground care, hold the gains of learning that we may have made during the strange years of the pandemic, and sustain change? In this module, we’ll return to the liberating structure of what/so what/now what to review:
- Reflect on changes you’ve made during the past twenty months that focus on care (for students and self)
- Reflect on changes you’re working toward or want to see (particularly in higher education systems)
Session Topic Introduction: Sustaining Change, Care, and Critique
In previous modules, we’ve looked at a convening topic through the lens of two key provocations or ideas. In this module, we will look at the question of sustaining change through the lenses of care and critique. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks explores how fundamentally classroom practices need to be rethought in order to build people’s capacity to be free in a democratic society and to contribute where they are coming from. Hooks’s pedagogy is focused on care and on the development of practices of critique, and has informed this module.
Figure 2: Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
We wanted to think about this project not just as something that happens and then ends, but rather something that educators who’ve engaged in our sessions — and those who will only encounter the sessions through the modules later — can use to build on, to inform their own practices. And so, this final module will draw on something called an Open Space Technology Facilitation format. A core principle of Open Space Technology is that the right people are always in the room. So, we will close out the project by spending time together aiming to connect and maybe share some ideas for sustaining change together through co-design, collaboration, or even potentially another grant project.
Critique and care are both part of change. Critique and critical inquiry into the way things are enables people to see possibilities for change, and caring, connected relationships support us in taking the hard and risky steps to try things differently. But it’s particularly when we’ve made that first step that care and critique come into play in making change systemic. Sustaining change is hard and seldom a straight line. Changes shape ecosystems and require other changes. Change destabilizes, and that demands care for people impacted by the shifts occurring. Care work in education can involve active support, but it can also involve shaping power relations and offering new principles for seeing the world and for engaging in interpersonal relations that don’t foster toxic hierarchies. This is long-term work, aligned with the metaphor of planting trees under whose shade we do not expect to sit. It is also care as reciprocal, community work: care as mutual aid rather than the atomized self-care sometimes promoted to us in pandemic-era university wellness emails.
The model below comes from digital strategy-type change work: it frames change as a continuing circular process, always bringing people into new conversations. It’s a reflective process with co-design as one of the core steps in its change work. But it also reflects that long-term nature of change work and the centrality of care and constructive critique to the process.
Figure 3: Forsythe, Giulia. “Model for Change.” 2022.
So that’s the What for considering care and critique in the context of change.
The So What is a recognition that most of us are profoundly weary at this point in this pandemic crisis. More weary, maybe, than we would have imagined we could be. And we seem to institutionally be hitting the point where decision-makers are saying, “Got to get back to it, folks, we’re going to go forward as if things were returning to normal.” But they aren’t, in most places, and even where they may be, educators and students actually haven’t had time to even process all that has happened to us. We haven’t had any respite or recovery. We’ve all been living in crisis, even those of us who’ve been privileged enough to be well and safe and housed and employed; we have all been living in a level of uncertainty that none of us had been conditioned to. And that is a difficult space to find the energy to make change from.
So, we want to honour that, through a lens of care, and not suggest that any of us pick up a whole new project on our shoulders and go forward as if nothing has happened. We would like to set a provocation, essentially, that some of what we may want to look at is how we deal with our institutions as we consider creating and sustaining change. And we’d like to suggest that care and critique are two keywords that are really important in that process.
Figure 4: National Equity Project. “Liberatory Design Card Deck.” National Equity Project, https://www.nationalequityproject.org/tools/liberatory-design-card-deck
This image, like the What? So What? Now What? model and the TRIZ model that our modules have drawn on, is part of the Liberated Structures facilitation collection, and there are little cards that illustrate them. This one reminds us that anytime we engage in any form of co-design, we are wise to do so from a sense of our own positionality and strengths. For example, I may want to see all kinds of changes in my institution, but I don’t have the power to execute or even influence them. They’re not in my wheelhouse. They’re not in my lane.
This module challenges us instead to think about changes that we have been making through this pandemic or through our engagement with this project. And to think about things that we want, but within the scope of what we can do, because it is not on any individual set of shoulders to change the world. When we’re talking about change, some levels we can direct and sustain more easily. So, we think of scope in terms of a nested model of change. At the personal level in the centre, we have a fair amount of control over the things that we can change or do in our classrooms or direct roles. Now, sometimes these changes still feel very vulnerable. We still risk failing. It’s not that change is easy, at this personal level, but it is actually within our purview.
As we recognize the limits of our individual abilities to create change, it can be helpful to prioritize. In Rawle’s article, she notes amidst her list of care practices one that reads “say no to theatre.” Now, this doesn’t mean theatre as tragedy and comedy but rather the pandemic theatre of, for instance, sending out wellness emails while engaging institutionally in practices that make staff and students feel, at best, deeply uncared for.
And that does start with us in our own pedagogical practices. Learning the skill of critique on an individual level allows us to scaffold towards institutional and societal change.
Often we aren’t formally taught to critique. Often students associate critique with criticism. Critique is a bit of an art. And it’s something that can help build relationships and actually help you move forward together in a really wonderful way. So, we talk about how to critique and non-eviscerate, we talk about the differences between critiquing a thing and critiquing a person, and we talk about apology and how apology needs to be the sort of thing that is part of critique. How to give a good apology: “I’m sorry that you felt that way” is not an apology, but for example, “I’m sorry, I” is an apology. And we talk about these examples. And students have some really interesting reflections on it. They talk about how their relationships with their roommates have changed because they’ve been able to understand the difference between critique and criticism and apology. So, these are life skills. And I feel like there’s an art to them. That’s something that we can practice — I think Coronavirus showed us that, especially in the digital domain, there are things that we can do here that make it more equitable and inclusive. So, I hope we don’t lose those. And I think the ability to approach that in a way that recognizes that there are humans at the other end of your critique is really valuable in this time when everything seems to be so polarized.
Figure 5: Photo by Tomas Sobek on Unsplash
How we can humanize learning is a really important possible step that we could start for building those connections, either between you or having conversations about possible new pathways.
One of the things that we were talking about in this module:
- What are the next steps? First, reflect on changes you’ve worked toward during the past twenty months (or seven weeks) that have focused on care, for students and self: What do you need or need to put in place to sustain those?
- Then, reflect on changes you’re working toward or want to see that focus on critique, particularly in our higher ed systems: What changes do you want to see made or sustained post-pandemic?
- Based on your care/critique answers, what co-design topics would you propose we build capacity toward going forward?
Findings Week 1: “What?”
Reflect on changes you’ve made during the past twenty months that focus on care (for students and self):
- Take breaks from screens
- Accept that you and your course cannot be all things to all students
- Revisit assignments and look at their flexibility
- Listen without judgment when told workload is heavy
- Reflect on student perspective
- Responding to student anxiety
- Checking in with students at the beginning of class (about things outside of the course)
Reflect on changes you’re working toward or want to see (particularly in higher ed systems):
- Understand students have requirements outside of the classroom
- Meaningful feedback
- Recognition of sessional labour and the level of sector/systemic risk
- Demarking work/home spaces
- Processing time — time between meetings to process and reflect
- Ways to make change come from students
Findings Week 2: “Now What?”
Future co-design topics:
- Virtual experiential learning
- Understanding data structures behind classroom tools
- Advocacy for B.Ed student paid placements
- Concrete action on DE&I
- Build trust to liberate critical thinking among students
- Grade curving and trusting criteria
- How do we bring these conversations/concepts to larger class sizes?
- How do we work with admin instead of against?
- How can we work with students to co-create sustainable things?
Link to Session Materials
Slide 4: Care
As we design our courses, we need to think about what our cornerstone will be. What theme should run through every aspect of our course? What core tenet should guide our course design decisions? If increased learning and wellness is our goal, we need to build from a foundation of kindness.
Slide 6: Critique
Recognizing our practice is in the context of systems. Critiquing individual and organizational levels is crucial, but remember to centre care at the individual level.
Figure 6: A Menimeter, or word generation exercise, summarizing participants’ thoughts on the OnHumanLearn workshop series. Some of the words generated are engaging, inspiring, community, transformative, and refreshing.
Questions for Future Conversations
- A lot of online resources can look like checklists, and some folks have become accustomed to seeing advice given in that format. How do we adopt a foundational (anti-checklist and anti-superficial) approach while at the same time welcoming those who seek a checklist? We need to highlight the importance and rationale of a foundational approach.
- How do we build structural supports within the institution so that this work becomes part of the core mandate, rather than just getting downloaded onto already overwhelmed instructors and staff?
Link to Twitter Conversations
The team created a hashtag that was used to continue conversations on Twitter: #OnHumanLearn
Resources that are especially relevant to the topic.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.
Humanizing Learning. https://www.zotero.org/groups/3361442/humanizing_learning.
Popova, Maria. “How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently.” The Marginalian, 28 Mar. 2014, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/28/daniel-dennett-rapoport-rules-criticism/.
Rawle, Fiona. “A Pedagogy of Kindness: The Cornerstone for Student Learning and Wellness.” The Campus, 20 Aug. 2021, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/pedagogy-kindness-cornerstone-student-learning-and-wellness.